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Let's resolve Canada's non-fiction crisis

Canada’s non-fiction crisis is the focus of this week’s SHuSH by Kenneth Whyte. That crisis is the absence of support in this country for research-based non-fiction – biography, history, and science. Whyte, publisher of Sutherland House, is spurred to comment by the recently announced five-book shortlist for the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust prize for non-fiction. He laments -- rightly in my view -- that all five books are memoirs. Dan Wells, publisher and owner of Biblioasis, writes in support of Whyte. Wells notes that writer Elaine Dewar worked solidly for more than a year to produce On the Origin of the Deadliest Pandemic in 100 Years – and he could afford to pay her only a modest four-figure advance. Few Canadian authors can afford to self-finance a research-heavy book. So countless books don’t get written. Canadians get swamped with biographies and histories from, ahem, other countries. “We’ve got to figure out a way to fund this kind of writing,” Wells writes, “whether it’s through private funders or through public funders.” Funnily enough, or maybe not so funnily, the Writers’ Trust of Canada was once on track to solve this problem. I know because in 2001, my book Fatal Passage won the Writers’ Trust Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize. That award was discontinued after 2006 in favor of what is now the Hilary Weston Prize for Nonfiction. That was the fatal wrong turn. True, the Drainie-Taylor was awarded for works of biography, autobiography, or memoir. And, also true,
in any given bookstore, you will find biography situated with autobiography. Still, the Drainie-Taylor pointed the way forward, and that is to split Nonfiction into the two streams Whyte and Wells have identified. An excellent place to begin would be to offer two different awards in nonfiction: one for Memoir and Autobiography, the other for Biography, History, and Science (research-heavy works). How hard can that be?
Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.